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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, January 03, 2011

The Heroism of Robert E. Lee and Other Myths

From the time of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address to the present day, the manifest courtesy that white supremacy in the United States has offered to the so-called Confederacy is without precedent in history.  Most nations that have undergone civil wars would have no concept of putting their defeated foes on a pedestal of fraternal tolerance, if not almost worshipful adoration.  No government, having fought and bled profusely in order to sustain its power would soon thereafter embrace its former enemies with “political” sentimentality and allow the restoration of land and fortune to them--even to the point of permitting them to rehabilitate the former banner of rebellion as a state banner.  

To put it otherwise, only a nation with a "higher" agenda than republican virtue would be willing to lionize its worst traitors and canonize their treacherous agenda in a kind of sentimental, apolitical patriotic understanding of history.  When Lincoln gave his famous speech, declaring “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” what did he mean?  Was he primarily thinking of enslaved Africans numbering in the millions, or primarily declaring the nature of his policy toward the defeated rebels of the South?  In fact, wasn't Lincoln trumpeting a message to the South, namely that he would not punish them—that there would be no treason trials and executions; that there would be no harsh reprisals; and there would be no paying-the piper for their perfidy?  All would be welcomed back into the fold, the fold of white priorities.

I did not grow up believing this, but it is hard to read our nation's history without coming to this very conclusion.  Like it or not, this is a real factor of U.S. history.  Frederick Douglass saw this clearly in Abraham Lincoln, whom he considered a noble soul albeit a whites-first leader.  Yet if Lincoln’s priorities were first and foremost for white people, how much less noble were the masses of Southern and Northern leaders of that era, many of whom were standard white supremacists, if not mean-spirited racists who disdained non-whites as inferior beings? And if Lincoln was a whites-first leader as Douglass once declared, what should we think of "noble" men like Robert E. Lee?

Thumbnail History

Although it may seem unkind to say, the tragic assassination of Lincoln in 1865 perhaps had one up-side: it was part of a chain of events that led to rise of “Radical” or “Black” Republicans—a powerful group of leaders who actually were more like John Brown than Abraham Lincoln, who not only wanted to treat the defeated rebels as traitors, but who wanted to secure and guarantee black freedom in the post-war era.  It was due to these “Radicals” that white supremacy was forced into something of a holiday (although never completely) in the decade following the Civil War.  Under the leadership of these "Radicals," the South remained occupied by federal troops, ensuring that blacks were actually given equal opportunity to establish businesses, participate in the democratic process, and begin to lay the foundation of their own community’s development.  Thanks to the “Radical” Republicans, post-war blacks established banks, businesses, and schools even as they entered positions of local and state leadership in the former slave states.  For a brief season, this nation actually tried to live up to its claims as a free and democratic society.

However, Reconstruction was soon deconstructed as the reunified nation regained “stability” and white priority arose from its political sickbed.  Indeed, as the political genes of this nation kicked in once more, the Republican Party began to shift away from "black concerns," toward a nation-building agenda that obviously entailed the priorities of white society, North and South.  Although some former Confederates had fought the government’s policies after the war, the post-Radical Republicans in the North were willing to give the reins of power back to the Southern white community, remove federal troops from the South, and essentially put aside the bad feelings of the Civil War at the expense of the black community.  Thus arose white supremacist terrorists, especially the original KKK and other armed-and-deadly groups comprised of former rebel soldiers.  These white supremacists--the original American terrorists--unleashed a deadly assault upon the vulnerable and defenseless black community in the South.  As a result, blacks fled westward in a mass "exodus," a nightmare scenario that only got worse through the end of the 19th century, and well into the 20th century.  Lynching became the sport of white supremacy in the South while a largely indifferent North looked on.  It took the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century to finally address the most obvious legal and political aspects of the emboldened legacy of post-Reconstruction terrorism dating back to the mid-19th century.

The Sentimental "History" of the South

I have made this thumbnail foray into 19th century U.S. history mainly to point out that along with the realpolitik of white supremacy in this country, the writing of history and portrayal of the same in our media has long reflected the same benevolent embrace of the traitorous so-called Confederate States of America.  Professional historians, journalists and novelists, and even screenplay writers all contributed to the romance of the South, the sentimentalizing of the plantation, the caricaturing of blacks as stupid simpletons, and the heroic representation of men like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.   All of this took place because white society was first and foremost interested in its own “family” agenda, something clearly expressed in Lincoln’s political sentiments and agenda.  To be sure, most whites entered the Civil War with no primary concern for the plight of black people.  That white society had to deal with black enslavement was a consequence of history (as John Brown saw in advance), although for most whites, the debate was about how it impacted whites and how whites believed slavery would be best managed.  Northern whites wanted free labor and despised black free laborers, just as they bemoaned the possibility of any black presence in their states.  Southern whites wanted black slave labor and wanted to expand it to new regions; southern leaders believed that the expansion of black chattel slavery was essential to their survival as a “people,” and they were willing to destroy the Union if deprived of that right to expand.  This is why the Civil War took place, and anyone who tries to blur the point by raising “states’ rights,” etc. is just running a con game of self-delusion.

I have not conducted a formal study, but I would confidently assert, for instance, that most of the movies made about the Civil War in Hollywood have romanticized the South and lionized rebel life and culture.  Throughout the 20th century, film and fiction, along with major historians, “resolved” the bloody history of the Civil War with a mythical resolution of (white) North-South sentimentality that celebrated the war as a patriotic epic—without acknowledging the visceral racism and white supremacist politics that actually shaped it.   Meanwhile, neo-Confederates (especially the evangelical Southern neo-secessionists who blend Reformed orthodoxy with their brand of “benign” Confederate romanticism) and their apologists continue to argue that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery or racism, that it was about the North’s aggressive, invasive policies, States’ Rights, and the pitting of two economic/spiritual orders against one another.  In the theatrics of such a dramatic myth, men like Robert E. Lee are canonized as saintly Christian reformers fighting the good fight, and John Brown is castigated as an apostate and murderer in cahoots with godless Northern liberals. It remains to be seen whether our nation will ever “get real” about the history of chattel slavery and the Civil War, and quit treating the latter as if it was little more than a deadly “blue vs. gray” football game.  Far too many people are spiritually, socially, and politically sold on the idea that slavery was a grandiose inconvenience at worst, and that their slave holding forebears were well-meaning people whose legacy should not be burdened with the hard realities of chattel slavery as a system of racism, violence, and theft of labor.  

Robert E. Lee and His Defenders

While I am used to complaining about how PBS and other television programs tend to portray John Brown, for once I am relieved to hear that a program to be broadcast this evening about Robert E. Lee has somewhat turned the table on Confederate romanticism.  According to Michael Hoffman ["In Defense of Robert E. Lee," Jan. 2, 2011, On the Contrary website], an outraged apologist of Robert E. Lee, the “American Experience” is going to portray Lee as a valorous but errant racist.  Quoting an article by Michael Fellman in the Washington Post (Jan. 1), Hoffman whines:
The film summons forth a smattering of endowed-chair academics and other history professors - Civil War experts all - to explain how Lee backed the wrong side for the wrong reasons. In short, he was a slavery apologist who let his own Old Dominion snobbery and sense of honor lead him to a righteous path of war. "He certainly never questioned the values of his class," history professor Michael Fellman observes. "He would talk about 'my people'...the white people of his social class, born to rule. His honor is involved in the defense of his 'people.'"
Hoffman follows this rant with a feeble attempt to justify Lee, for instance by calling John Brown a terrorist and pointing out that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison despised the U.S. Constitution, and making the feeble point of how lowly the Irish were held in the era of slavery—as if any of this (true or not) negates the basic point that (1) Robert E. Lee chose to defend and support a white supremacist regime; (2) Robert E. Lee was a slave holder himself; and (3) Robert E. Lee was a traitor to his nation and lent his skills and genius toward making the war far worse despite  the moral bankruptcy and real economic limitations of the so-called Confederacy. 

Hoffman particularly despises a writer named Alan Kurtz for calling Lee “America’s Greatest Traitor” on a blog entitled Technorati, in which Kurtz reviews the January 3rd PBS broadcast. Hoffman’s arguments against Kurtz tend to be distracting and shallow due to his alternate agenda of attacking Orthodox Judaism. But even so, Hoffman cannot help but argue the same tired lines of most neo-Confederates and romanticizers of the South:
The "They were traitors!” cry at the Confederacy contains an irony: King George III issued a similar slander against the secessionist Founders of our nation. British monarchist Samuel Johnson nullified the whole basis of the American Revolution, by sneering at the patriots as “drivers of negroes” (he had nothing opprobrious to say, however, about the “drivers” of child miners, chimney sweeps and other desperately penurious, virtually enslaved white youth in his native Britain).
But Hoffman’s whines just don’t answer the point.  The founders of this nation, though rebels, were not collaborative equals in the British empire.  Right or wrong, they were colonists who wanted independence to pursue their own agenda.  Although they betrayed the King of England, they did not do so in the same way that the South betrayed the Union.  When the Southern rebellion began, Southern leadership was seated in high places of government.  Both the law and the courts had upheld pro-slavery interests for a decade prior to the rebellion, and Lincoln had no intention of abolishing slavery in 1860.  Whether or not the British colonies of North America were biblically correct in rebelling against England is not a point I wish to engage at this point.  As a Christian, John Brown evidently believed the rebellion was theologically justifiable; I have my doubts.  But I do not doubt that it is completely wrong to compare the Southern rebellion with the colonial rebellion of 1776 as Hoffman does in trying to defend Lee.

Robert E. Lee the Worst of Traitors

To the contrary, Kurtz is right on.  He points out that among the ten worst battles of the Civil War, Lee led rebel forces in six, resulting in nearly 200,000 deaths.  Lee was a criminal by law, according to the Article III, Sec. 3 of the Constitution in regard to treason.  As Kurtz says, Lee does not stand in the company of “great” men, but in the camp of Benedict Arnold and other traitors.  Yet “the court of public opinion” has consistently ruled in favor of Robert E. Lee.   Lee was restored to citizenship after betraying his nation and never stood trial despite levying war against the U.S., “adhering to its enemies, [and] giving them aid and comfort,” writes Kurtz.
So how do we remember Robert E. Lee? Amazingly, instead of reviling his memory, we revere it. His one-time home, a Greek revival style mansion overlooking the Potomac, directly across from the National Mall in our nation's capital, surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery, has been designated as a National Memorial, and is operated by the National Park Service. Notice how many times the word "national" appears in that sentence! Robert E. Lee did more than anyone else to tear this nation apart, yet we honor him as a national hero. 

The Unkindest Cut

Students and admirers of John Brown find this reality the unkindest cut of all.  It is bad enough that too many people in this nation have been mis-educated into thinking that Brown was a sinister, mad, or ruthless terrorist, when in reality he was one of a few of the most humanitarian and freedom-loving men of his era.  But worse is that racists and traitors are pictured on our greenbacks or revered as heroic men of the nation, determinedly woven into the fabric of what "America" means to many people in this country.

But what kind of a nation so easily forgives racists and slave holders--to the point of emblazoning their images and romanticizing their treachery, and even allowing the flag of their betrayal to fly over some of the former “Confederate” states?  What kind of a nation hates and despises abolitionists and freedom fighters whose vision for the nation was truly for freedom and justice for all?

The answer is self-evident.  It is the nation in which we live, the nation handed down to us by our predecessors.

The last question, however, is whether, in the 21st century, we are willing to begin to tell the truth about our history and its leading figures.  Are we going to continue to celebrate Robert E. Lee and dismiss John Brown to the margins of national contempt?  The answer will be significant, to say the least.


1stafricanamerican said...

Professor DeCaro:

I address you with this title of distinction because your distinctive presentation is one which a lesser disciplinarian could not have written. The late Dr. T. Harry Williams, Emeritus Professor of History at LSU, presided over my studies in the Civil War and Reconstruction in graduate school. His views and those of historians in general were those which you admirably have described. The process of villainizing the victim continues. I enjoyed reading this segment. Needless to say, I agree with you wholeheartedly! Thanks for sharing your insight.

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Thank you sir.--LD